Today, the San Mateo County Harbor Commission is set to consider and potentially ratify a contract to hire James Pruett as the new general manager of the district. 

It’s been almost a year since former San Mateo County Harbor District General Manager Steve McGrath resigned. Now commissioners have a tight deadline to fill that position or face a penalty from the California Public Employees Retirement System. 

Pruett most recently served as the U.S. Coast Guard District 11 chief of staff in Alameda. He grew up in Pacifica and, as a child, his family owned a fishing business at Pillar Point Harbor. Prior to his work in Alameda he served as the commander of Coast Guard Sector Guam. Pruett’s annual Harbor District salary would be $170,000, according to the staff report. 

If a new contract for the district’s top official is not approved at the meeting, the district faces a $7,000 fine from CalPERS, according to Director of Administrative Services Julie van Hoff. The fine will go into effect Dec. 13 and will continue to accrue the longer Interim General Manager John Moren stays in his position past that date. 

“CalPERS only allows a person to work out of class for so many days and once a person goes over that threshold a penalty occurs,” van Hoff said. 

In January 2019, then-board president Sabrina Brennan appointed herself and Commissioner Edmundo Larenas to an ad-hoc committee to begin the process of looking for new leadership. The pair worked with CPS HR Consulting, based in Sacramento, to identify a slate of more than 40 potential candidates who met the qualifications to serve as general manager. 

Larenas said by midyear the special committee was able to whittle down the array of candidates to a few.

“We were headed in that direction and got to the point where we wanted to bring forth the entire board,” he said.  

However, in September, the board changed leadership, appointing Commissioner Virginia Chang Kiraly as the president. One of her first actions was to change the makeup of the ad-hoc committee tasked with searching for a candidate. 

“It took a lot longer than anyone would have liked,” she said. “There was a lot of work done from September until now.” 

Commissioners Nancy Reyering and Tom Mattusch took the lead of narrowing down a few final candidates before settling on Pruett as the top choice. 

However, some people say their voices were not included in these discussions. A few people sent emails to commissioners and the district asking for more opportunities for the public to be involved. 

“While I understand your goal of filling the position before there are any legal or financial consequences … conducting interviews with only four commissioners present, and in the absence of stakeholder input, lacks the transparency so many of us have hoped to see,” wrote Montara resident April Vargas in an email. Commissioner Larenas also thought the public was not adequately represented in this process. 

“I am very disappointed they did not do this,” Larenas said. “One of the rationales given was for the privacy for the individuals applying for the job. But this is a public entity and it’s a huge decision for the district.” 

Mattusch said there have been opportunities and the public didn’t show much interest in the process. 

“The public did not respond to any of the meetings prior,” he said. 

For the past month and a half, Mattusch and Reyering reportedly had several telephone meetings related to the general manager search. 

“This person has an impeccable and immaculate career and we’re really honored to have him on board,” Mattusch said.

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